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Henri Nouwen on Theological Reflection

Henri Nouwen (1932-1996)

Henri Nouwen (1932-1996)

A Facebook friend posted a shorter version of this quote on his wall today:

Few ministers and priests think theologically. Most of them have been educated in a climate in which the behavioral sciences, such as psychology and sociology, so dominated the educational milieu that little true theology was being learned. Most Christian leaders today raise psychological and sociological questions even though they frame them in scriptural terms. Real theological thinking … is hard to find in the practice of ministry. Without solid theological reflection, future leaders will be little more than pseudo-psychologists, pseudo-sociologists, pseudo-social workers. They will think of themselves as enablers, facilitators, role models, father or mother figures, big brothers or big sisters, and so on, and thus join the countless men and women who make a living by trying to help their fellow human beings to cope with the stresses and strains of everyday living. But that has little to do with Christian leadership because the Christian leader thinks, speaks and acts in the name of Jesus, who came to free humanity from the power of death and open the way to eternal life. To be such a leader it is essential to be able to discern from moment to moment how God acts in human history and how the personal, communal, national and international events that occur during our lives can make us more and more sensitive to the ways in which we are led to the cross and through the cross to the resurrection…

— Henri Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership (1993) pp. 65-66.

Obviously, Nouwen felt that this was true at the time he wrote it, but I wonder: how true is this today?

I am quite thankful for the early grounding I had in Scripture and prayer. And my theological education at Asbury Theological Seminary built on that foundation. There may be many things about the culture of conservative, evangelical Christianity that I didn’t like — and still don’t — but, really, on the whole I am very thankful. People — mostly people in the holiness and pentecostal traditions — started me out well. They weren’t flawless, of course — but neither am I.

What is continually needed is the kind of spiritual formation that will make true theological reflection possible.

I tend to think of Scripture, prayer and service as being the sources of spiritual formation. And, I am not a all listing them in any order. All of them are formative. All of them are needed. Some people will naturally gravitate toward one, some to another. But, it is best to find some sort of balance.

And, I think spiritual leaders that are not grounded in these disciplines of the faith really do become useless — they become redundant in the very way that Nouwen suggests: “pseudo-psychologists, pseudo-sociologists, pseudo-social workers.”

So the question is: how well do churches and Seminaries (and any other Christian institutions or ministries of which you can think) ground people in the basic spiritual disciplines that can make true theological thinking possible?

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